Whether you’ve spent too much time on Facebook or recently argued with a relative over politics, chances are you’re familiar with fake news. Unfortunately, disinformation is even more prevalent than you might think. Back in 2017, Gartner made the stunning prediction that by 2022, “most people in mature economies will consume more false information than true information.” The advent of voice cloning and deepfakes have only helped exacerbate this mounting threat.
But just as technology has empowered the fake news problem, so might it be its downfall. In the fight to preserve journalistic integrity, an innovative new contender has emerged: blockchain.
What is blockchain?
In the simplest terms, blockchain (or Distributed Ledger Technology) is a database of digital information that is replicated at multiple locations. Harvard Business Review gets a little more granular, defining blockchain as “a decentralized, immutable ledger to record information in a way that’s constantly verified and re-verified by every party that uses it, making it nearly impossible to alter information after it’s been created.” Deloitte identifies five key tenets of blockchain:
- Distributed — Since records are shared across a blockchain network, verification of the data can also be shared.
- Consensus-based — Similarly, shared data verification means a consensus (often a majority, though some blockchain networks are governed by different rules) must be reached by the network participants.
- Digitized — Most information can be expressed digitally, allowing blockchain to work for a variety of sources.
Chronological — Blockchain contains a permanent timestamp which refers to the previous data block, linking the various blocks together and forming a chronological, traceable path.
Sealed — Blockchain is also cryptographically sealed, meaning the blocks in the chain cannot be altered or copied and are therefore rendered digitally authentic.
Popularized as the source of secure records for cryptocurrency transactions, blockchain is poised to revolutionize industries reliant on trust and transparency. And in this insidious age of fake news, where re-verified, unalterable content has become a pipe dream for journalists, savvy media companies have leaped at the chance to leverage blockchain technology.
How a blockchain-based news platform can detect fake news
Unfortunately, blockchain can’t stop bad actors from disseminating fake news, but it can inject a much-needed dose of authentication into legitimate publications. “What blockchain-based news and media projects could do, at minimum, is foster a new sense of trust in what they see online by making it easier to track and verify,” says IBM. “Such efforts could also encourage the public to exercise a healthier skepticism of online media overall.”
Using IBM’s open-source Hyper-Ledger fabric, Block Expert released Safe.press in 2019. This open-network blockchain technology enables media companies, news outlets, and freelance journalists alike to publish content with a Safe.press stamp — aka “a digital seal of approval that’s linked to an associated blockchain key.”
Harvard Business Review identifies several other uses of blockchain in journalism:
- Verifying provenance — Since blockchain can determine not only where content originated but how it’s been disseminated and consumed, it can be used to verify everything from copyright to photo consent.
- Identity and reputation — With trust in mainstream media institutions at a low (especially in the U.S.), blockchain can go a long way in verifying an author’s reputation as a credible source, regardless of the affiliated publication.
- Incentivizing quality content — According to HBR, one of blockchain’s biggest benefits could ultimately be its ability to incentive quality content over clickbait; “if designed well, a blockchain system can break through today’s crowded information ecosystem and incentivize people to only create and share content that meets the community’s requirements.”
Examples of blockchain being used against fake news
Though the use of blockchain technology in the media is still fairly nascent, there are several high-profile examples. Take, for instance, The New York Times. In 2019, the paper announced The News Provenance Project, a bold mission “to diminish the spread of misinformation by empowering readers to make more informed, confident judgments about the news they see online.” The first challenge The Times tackled was photojournalism; specifically, using blockchain technology to analyze a photo’s metadata. “We wanted to see whether visible contextual information, such as the photographer’s name and the location depicted in the photo, could help readers better discern the credibility of news photos in their social feeds,” recalled The New York Times in 2020. Upon testing their blockchain prototype, The Times Research and Development team concluded “it effectively helped them make informed judgments about photos in a social media feed.”
Also in 2019, MGM Studios partnered with content blockchain purveyor Eluv.io to facilitate a direct-to-consumer distribution platform, effectively eliminating “the creation of additional copies of files used in distribution networks or storage facilities.”
In 2020, Italian news agency ANSA released ANSAcheck, a blockchain-based tracking system allowing readers to verify the origin of news articles published on their platform. While The Associated Press enlisted blockchain firm Everpedia to verify data when covering the 2020 U.S. election. Other prominent media companies to leverage blockchain technology include French tele-communications company Orange and China’s internet search engine Baidu.
Beyond these prominent use cases, several organizations have emerged to help fight the spread of fake news, including the Deep Trust Alliance — “a global coalition of stakeholders advancing the fight against digital disinformation and deepfakes.” The more cooperative measures like this emerge, the better chance journalism has to successfully implement blockchain-based authentication measures. Though time will tell how far reaching the implications of blockchain will be in the fight against disinformation, it’s certainly an auspicious start.